School starting age

As all the US bloggers I read have sent their children to kindergarten, I’ve been pondering on school starting ages in different countries. There is a surprising (to me) amount of variability. According to this research paper, in Europe, the standard school starting age varies from four (Northern Ireland) to seven (Bulgaria, Estonia, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Sweden).

Here in Australia, we have variability by state, with the minimum age varying from 4 and six months (NSW) to 5 (Tasmania) and the maximum from 6 (in the year of school) to 6 and 8 months (in the year of school).

This isn’t just differences in definition of pre-school and school; it’s real differences in the age when formal learning starts.

Surprisingly, there appears to be no educational difference that can be discerned from starting school even with such wide ages. There is slight evidence (from US headstart programs) that disadvantaged children do better with a less academic more child-led preschool program (suggesting that starting formal school young is not better for disadvantaged children.

And the best attempt at a like for like comparison between UK (starting age 5) and Slovenia (starting age 6) suggested that, if anything, the Slovenian children were doing better by the age of 8.

My instinctive reaction to the much higher starting age in continental Europe is that it’s probably fine for the kids with a good home life, but not so much for the poorer children. This research indirectly refutes that, but only indirectly. Providing there is pre-school before school, it’s better for children to have less structured learning early. But that’s a big if.

Here in Australia, particularly in NSW, it’s actually quite hard to get into a pre-school for free if you don’t have the money to pay for it. So for poor children, the choice is school or nothing at all. And I’d be surprised if no learning opportunity is still better than a structured academic environment, even at (perhaps) too young an age.

But what this research suggests to me is that school should continue to be free and starting from the year you turn five. But that first year should be less academic, and more child led and play structured. And the year before school should also be similar, and funded Australia wide.

  6 comments for “School starting age

  1. September 28, 2006 at 6:25 am

    Here in Germany, school starting age is the year you turn six. My daughter has just started school at 6 years, 8 months. Our second will start school at 6 years, 10 months. This seems very old to my husband, who was born in England where kids go to school at 4. I would be interested to check out the research to try and see how this two year difference affects learning. As novices in the German school system we recently consulted an educational therapist about whether to allow our second child to wait so long. Her theory is, given the large class sizes in state schools (anything from 25 to 35 kids), children should be as mature as possible in order to cope. Here they plunge in with an academic curriculum immediately, which is vital since junior school lasts only 4 years. Our nearly seven-year-old is coping fine – time will tell how the younger kids are managing.

  2. September 28, 2006 at 12:30 pm

    I was amazed, when my daughter started kindergarten (she turned 5 during the first month), that her teacher complained to us that she hadn’t been in an academic-enough setting in pre-school. It’s hard to believe that a four-year-old would do well in any kind of academic setting, regardless of their background.

  3. September 29, 2006 at 9:36 pm

    I couldn’t agree you more about the idea of having government-funded play-orientated preschools Australia-wide. I have heard there are plans for the government to fund more pre-schools in NSW. I hope those plans go through, although I think there might be pressure to turn them into mini-schools. I have been concerned about the trend nowadays to force even babiesinto academic activities. Some of the mothers I know are teaching their 10-month old babies to “read” by drilling them with flashcards and these reading programmes you hear about on TV. When I mutter: “Um, my baby isn’t remotely interested in books yet,” I get the inevitable response: “Oh, little Jonquil just loves books!” and the heavy implication that my baby already has ADHD. It’s all so silly! I couldn’t imagine anything that would turn him more off reading than if I drilled him in vocab and grammar.

  4. susoz
    September 30, 2006 at 9:00 pm

    I have a pal in Finland whose son didn’t start school till nearly 7. But he was in a Swedish-immersion preschool from age 4 onwards, a stratagy which is apparently quite common there (where they all speak at least three languages) – a play oriented preschool. When he started school, he could barely write his own name – yet he could speak two languages fluently. Within six months of starting school he could read and write.
    My impression is that most of the European countries which don’t start kids till 6 or seven have good quality preschool available. I agree with you that it would be a wonderful thing if Australia did too. In general I’m n favour of a higher school starting age – at least, I don’t think it’s a good thing for four year olds to be at school, as is more and more the case in Britain.

  5. October 1, 2006 at 12:03 am

    In WA we are, next year, starting what is called pre-kindergarten, which will start for kids at 2 years, 6 months. Non-compulsory, though and not available at all schools.

  6. October 1, 2006 at 11:06 pm

    Hey Penguin Unearthed, I’m a maths person too who blogs on different things. I’ll add you to my blogroll.

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